Danticat

Putting a face on Haitian suffering
Book Review

By EILEEN FELDMAN- Leader executive editor

___Haitian-born writer Edwidge Danticat's collection of stories, "The Dew Breaker" (Knopf, $22), can only be described as labyrinthine as it confronts the reader with interwoven parallel tales of the horrors and beauty of life in Port Au Prince, Haiti, as it was ruled by the ruthless dictator Papa Doc Duvalier and his band of thugs, and subsequent life in Brooklyn among those who fled his rule but can never put the horror of it behind them.
___ An intricate interleafing of short stories that can either be taken alone or read together as a novel, the collection draws Danticat's reader in as subtle connections are drawn among the book's Haitian characters who are among those who fled the horrors of that country only to find themselves confronting or living alongside those who earlier victimized them.
___ Political struggle, torture, poverty, loss of family members, fear for self, spouse and children are themes explored in the book and closely intertwined with the redeeming values of hope, love and faith that life will be better.
___ Described as "one of contemporary fiction's most sensitive conveyors of hope's bittersweet persistence in the midst of poverty and violence," by Margaria Fichtner of the Miami Herald, Danitcat's stories put a face on descendants of those generations of Haitians who have lived through centuries of violent political upheaval and the legacy of slavery that has torn apart the country as well as its families.
___ Because Haiti is this talented and sensitive writer's birthplace – she lived there until the age of 12 – it holds a special place in her heart.
___ She returned there earlier this year with her husband to celebrate the New Year and she writes of the country and its people with affection, sensitivity and a sense of hope for their survival. The hotel in which the couple stayed was nearly empty, and just over a month later armed rebels captured Cap Hatien, Haiti's second largest city in bid to overthrow President Jean-Bertrand Aristide.
___ Such is the legacy of Haiti a country torn physically and emotionally apart and struggling to stay afloat.
___ Danticat's most compelling fictional character is the dew breaker himself – the executioner or torturer who comes for his victims before the break of dawn – carrying out the ferocious and cruel whims of his superiors, often disabling, terrorizing or murdering his victims.
___ The term dew breaker is Danticat's translation of the Creole expression "shouket la-roze," a brutal regional or rural leader and torturer.
___ Confronted in a nearly mystical way with the terror he has wracked on the lives of his fellow countrymen, he flees to Brooklyn with the woman who has confronted him and who learns to love him. They conceive a child named Ka (from the "Egyptian Book of the Dead") after the soul or life force that accompanies one through life and into the afterworld as a mystical body double.
___ The dew breaker views his wife and child as that soul and sees them as a means to his personal redemption. He became a killer and torturer but hopes to be redeemed through hope and love. Still he hides his horrible past from those he loves and from his neighbors who consider him a harmless barber.
___ His daughter, though persistently puzzled by her father's behavior, is further distressed when he finally reveals his sordid past to her. She feels it's a past she would have been better off not knowing. You feel her sense of hopelessness and abandonment as she realizes she's never really known her father.
___ So goes the suite of stories. Characters, such as the funeral singer, for whom there is still hope hope in a new life, a new child, a new marriage, love and closeness as experienced by another family starting out in New York – seek to obliterate the legacy of pain from which they've traveled.
___ Our hope is that they succeed and that Danticat continues to make hers – and their – voices heard to explain the often unexplainable which is only too familiar for those who have lived through similar horrendous experiences be it in war-torn countries, as victims of brutal crimes or their families who live with the wounds and loss, or victims of genocide or the Holocaust. For some of Danticat's fictional characters, living in the past is all they can do.

Other books of Danticat's include "Krik! Krak!" an earlier collection of stories of Haitians living both here and on the island, "The Farming of Bones," on the past's intrusions into everyday life, and "Breath, Eyes, Memory," an Oprah Book Club selection. She is also the editor of "The Butterfly's Way: Voices from the Haitian Dyaspora in the United States."

 

THE DEW BREAKER
By Edwidge Danticat
Alfred A. Knopf $22.00
244 pages